Long presenting itself as a bastion of freedom, the USA appears to have relegated this status to an era of the past. In the 2019 “Freedom of the Press” ranking by the nongovernmental organization “Reporters Without Borders” (RSF), the country has fallen into a category described as “problematic”. The US ranked 48th of 180, just behind Romania and right ahead of Senegal. It presents the fourth year of decline, as press freedom for its 327 million inhabitants has been continuously decreasing since 2016, and it is a drop of three positions compared to last year.
A hostile atmosphere for journalists has taken hold in the country, fueled, amongst others, by a populist president who repeatedly attacks the press in a plethora of ways and decries reporters as “enemies of the people” and their publications as “fake news”, should they engage in unfavorable coverage. This in turn has emboldened local officials to take more severe and questionable measures in attempts to curtail free reporting – evidenced by the example of a criminal investigation into journalists’ after-hour phone calls in an Oregonian county.
Reporters Without Borders raise alarm that the disliking of media (especially of liberal outlets) has reached a new level of hatred, with newsrooms throughout the country having “been plagued by bomb threats” and open expression of violence in the tragic attack on Maryland’s Capital Gazette newsroom, which killed five people, including four journalists.
27 reporters have been attacked so far in 2019, as well as eight arrested, most commonly during protests, according to the “U.S. Press Freedom Tracker”. Further, eight journalists were searched extensively at the border and there have been four reports of search and seizure of equipment submitted to the tracker’s online database, plus eleven subpoenas or legal orders directed against members of the media to oblige them to release information or material.
A trend has emerged of excluding media from events of public interest, with reporters having been escorted from or not permitted entry into several of President Trump’s rallies (the US Press Freedom Tracker counts a total of 26 incidents of journalists being denied access in 2019). The Trump White House has also notably set a new record for the longest time span without a White House Press Conference.
RSF places the United States 30 spots behind its northern neighbor, Canada, in 2019’s ranking. The problematic category which the US has descended into for the first time since the first annual ranking in 2002 also includes countries such as Mauritania, Angola and Kyrgyzstan.
Ranked at the very top of the index are European countries, in order Norway (for the third time in a row), Finland, Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark. The countries scoring the worst marks were Sudan, Vietnam, China, Eritrea, North Korea and Turkmenistan, in descending order.
This year’s ranking, and even more so the general downward trend that has persisted over the last years, should serve as a dire warning to the country which has somewhat of an obsession for the words in its constitution – a constitution which, in its very first amendment, guarantees the freedom of the press.